Arts Desk

Vitamin A: The Hillwood Estate’s Fabergé Egg

In which our art critics highlight a favorite work on view in a local gallery. Click to enlarge!

Jack Shafer did the math: Sunday's New York Times mentioned Downton Abbey in seven different stories. I'm way behind the times, so to speak, as I've only just picked up on the show. (Read on—no spoilers here.) And so far, I've learned one thing about it.

OK, two things. First, that a newspaper can be ironed. Bully for you if your valet has your City Paper ironed for you every Thursday, but I had no idea. Second, this word "dowager." In the PBS series, "dowager" appears in the title of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, an acidic avatar of old money, a tea-stained New Yorker cartoon brought to life by Maggie Smith. (Or perhaps a New York Magazine paper doll brought to screen.)

Dear me, I'm afraid I didn't know that word before this week. But I didn't learn what a dowager was from Cousin Violet—instead, I picked it up at D.C.'s own Downton: the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, the estate and collection of the Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

On Valentine's Day, the Hillwood Museum hosted a special "Guns n' Roses" reception for a new exhibition, "The Style That Ruled the Empires: Russia, Napoleon and 1812." A small exhibit to mark the bicentennial of the ill-fated march of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée into the waiting arms of the Russian Winter (a calamity you may recall from War and Peace), it features a few timely pieces from the Post collection of Imperial Russian arts and crafts and 18th- and 19th-century French objects.

The greatest work in the collection—which is not in the Dacha with the special exhibit (please note that this is a museum with a dacha) but rather on display in the mansion with the permanent collection—is the Catherine the Great Fabergé egg. Made in 1914 by the House of Fabergé, it was originally presented by Czar Nicholas II of Russia to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna. (See? There's your word.) This egg celebrates the arts and sciences (as did Catherine the Great), with scenes painted en camaïeu rose (pink monochrome) after the 18th-century Rococo paintings of François Boucher. The surprise inside (how could anything this fancy not have a secret surprise inside?) was said to be a little wind-up golden figurine of two slaves carrying Catherine the Great on a sedan. (Surprise! It's now lost.)

The Catherine the Great Easter egg is one of the 1-percentiest pieces of art to be found in all of Washington. All told, there are just more than 40 Imperial Fabergé eggs the world over, including the other Fabergé egg at the Hillwood Museum—another gift of the Czar to his mother the Dowager Empress.

As anyone who has seen Downton Abbey knows, things didn't go so well for the Czar—oh, fine, a spoiler—who was executed with his extended family by the Bolsheviks so admired by Lady Sybil Crawley's stupid loser boyfriend. But the Czar's loss was, in the end, Marjorie Merriweather Post's gain—and it works in the favor of Washington's Downton fans, too. Sitting room for sitting room, the Hillwood may be the closest thing Washington has to a Downton. And for pure fancy, the Fabergé's got Downton beat.

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